I called home about this time five years ago, desperately needing a break while studying for my Theology final, the last final exam of my degree. Planning on just shooting the breeze with my parents my Mom, Diane, asked the dreaded question. “So, how’s the studying going?” Without warning I burst into tears, my emotional release valve for many intense emotions, and confided in her that I was terrified about this exam. There was just so much to remember and I was so tired after an already full week of challenging final exams. She sighed, and I could practically see her raise her eyes to the heavens as she shook her head as she said “You know, for a future pastor you really need to have a little more faith. You’re going to be fine, and I bet you’ll even get an A on the exam.” I took a deep breath, and with a retort that was tinged with part annoyance and part relief I answered “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
I have to be honest with you. Thomas gets a pretty bad rap for his request for proof that Jesus was alive. Centuries after this text was written, we sometimes even hear someone called a Doubting Thomas if they exhibit any skepticism for something that they are told. But in reality, Thomas is no different than any of the other disciples in our Gospel reading this morning. After Mary Magdalene (and the other Mary) return from the empty tomb on Easter morning they do as the angel and Jesus had told them, they share with the disciples that Christ has risen! Yet that very evening we find the disciples gathered together behind locked doors out of fear of the authorities that had put Jesus to death. The disciples socially distanced themselves, for their own safety, sequestering themselves in an upper room away from everyone else, with no time table for when they would be able to move safely again. Their fear and uncertainty have overridden the truth in the good news that the women brought to them. Sound familiar? [Pause] Suddenly, out of nowhere, Jesus arrives on the scene and greets them with “Peace be with you.” After Peter denied Jesus three times, after each of the remaining eleven ran away from their friend and teacher in his final hour, instead of asking the disciples “Where were you when I needed you?” Jesus says “Peace be with you.” Peace be in your heart and believe that I am still here with you. Peace be in your mind as you process all that has happened in the past three days, even if you don’t have all the answers. Peace. Be. With. You. True to form for his entire ministry Jesus shows up and again does the unexpected. Not only does Jesus greet the disciples with the gift of peace a second time, but he showed them his wounds and then commissions them to continue the ministry that he started. Then Jesus presents the disciples with yet another gift. He breathes into his friends and followers the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift with the purpose of inspiring and sustaining their calling.
And Thomas missed out. Where was he? Was he trying to gather news and information for the disciples? Was he trying to get supplies to help them as they sheltered in place? In any case, Thomas is risking his own life to support his friends and before Thomas can tell them what he experienced he learns that something amazing happened, without him. The disciples had a life altering encounter with this teacher who called each of them out of their ordinary lives, and taught them extraordinary things, who had died horrifically, and was raised again to life three days later. An encounter where Jesus greeted them like old friends and called them to something that would yet again change their lives forever and Thomas missed out. Like Aaron Burr, in Hamilton, he wanted to be in the room where it happens, and Thomas missed out.
Can you imagine what that must have felt like when the disciples told him? In the span of a few hours Jesus appears to the women at the Tomb, then to the rest of the disciples and possibly more besides. We are never given a reason why Thomas was absent that night, but I can’t help but wonder at the hurt, and the fear, and even anger that Thomas likely experienced hearing the news that he had missed out on what could have been his last chance to see Jesus face to face. That he was denied the same sense of closure that turned his friends’ fear into rejoicing. And so in the midst of all that intense emotion, Thomas reacts. “I’ll believe it, when I see it,” Thomas says, I’ll believe it when I get to see Jesus again too.” Thomas is essentially asking for the same proof that the other disciples experienced. This wounded person wants to see his teacher, a wounded healer, with his own eyes, to have the same opportunity to touch him with his own hands. Touch is capable of being a powerfully comforting sensation. After all that Thomas has been through I can’t blame him for wanting to see and touch his loved one again. To have tangible proof that Jesus, who Thomas knew to be dead, is alive again. All after hearing that the disciples had that very experience, which to grief stricken ears sounds just too good to be true. And so in his grief Thomas verbalizes what he needs to make that leap from unbelief to belief: the same opportunity the rest of his community received. After all, how many of us have longed to see and to touch a loved one who has died or been separated from us for any reason?
A week later we happen upon an almost identical scene. The disciples, this time with Thomas among them, are again gathered together. Again, Jesus appears among them and again he greets his friends with “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus turns and addresses Thomas directly, offering to him exactly what Thomas said that he needed to believe, without once shaming Thomas for his doubt.
The gospel writer never tells us if Thomas takes Jesus up on his offer to touch the scars. But what he does tell us is that doubt melted away for Thomas and his unbelief was transformed. Because Jesus was willing to meet him where he was, in his grief, in his fear, in his unbelief in what had come to pass, Thomas boldly cries out “My Lord, and my God,” and identifies Jesus not only as the one who called him to ministry, but takes it a step further and identifies Jesus as one with God, in the most direct statement of faith in the Gospel. Jesus then teaches Thomas one last time, with one final declaration of blessing. It’s easy to think that when Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” that he is reprimanding Thomas publicly for not taking the other disciples at their word, but that seems so out of character for Jesus. Jesus is offering Thomas some friendly advice, reminding him that believing takes trust and it takes faith, even when we don’t always have the answers.
Thomas, like the other disciples, is commissioned to go out into the world, continuing Jesus’ ministry. Just as Thomas was blessed with belief through seeing Jesus, Thomas can bless others by sharing his witness with those whom he encounters. That’s how all of what we now have in Scripture started out, as stories shared between people who believed, even without having the opportunity to see Jesus like the disciples did. Even after his death and resurrection Jesus was present with Thomas in his grief and his doubt. As a result, Thomas too was equipped by Jesus through the Holy Spirit to meet those whom he encountered where they were at in the messiness of their lives and bless them with what they too needed to believe. After sharing Thomas’ revelation of faith, the Fourth Evangelist reaches out to his readers through the ages and Thomas’ story is the perfect case study of the mission of the Gospel of John: “These things are written so that you may come to believe.” After all, we were not in that upper room with the disciples either time Jesus greeted them with a sign of peace. We did not see Jesus in human form, we did not get to see his wounds or touch them. Yet, someone, somewhere met us where we were and shared the story with us, and that blessing was passed on once again. As Thomas’ story can attest, doubt is a part of faith, Jesus never says otherwise. Yet, this year I think we can understand what it was like a little bit more than we ever have before. In spite of our doubts we receive what we need, we hear something that reaches into our very soul and breathes the Holy Spirit into each one of us, and we believe. As an Easter people we believe that the risen Christ enters into our own isolation and social distancing, through our own locked doors in our own Upper Rooms, into our own fears and our own doubts and says peace be in your heart and believe that I am still here with you. Peace be in your mind as you process all that has happened in the past month and in those to come, even if you don’t have all the answers. Peace. Be. With. You. Thanks be to God.